.. | the gypsy of rhiddeia | chapter 1
For an age before, and up to that time before my eighteenth year of life, there had been no threat of real importance, not a whisper of discord from west of the mountains. The Mothallah only stood, purple and vast, quiet sentinels in the westerland, as the only frontier that separated Azurai from the rest of the known region. Certainly ships came from far off lands along the eastern ocean ports to trade, but without the connection of land and people, they seemed only a small reminder that there was a bigger world out there. Azurai had no ships of her own in harbour, she did not desire to explore. It was others who came to her for trade of expensive woods, spices, and cane.
Since her hazy beginnings she had been made remote between the mountain and the sea, so that the people and land had flourished as the isolated children of a culture rich in religion, one whose roots have now been much forgotten. Faith is, as a rule, based upon unquestioned belief, not logic. All that was believed was simply believed because it always had been, and it was understood that there were few who would seek to disturb this comfortable complacency. After all, time and tale had revealed the Azurati to be the gods' chosen people.
Even now in these modern ages, after Azurai had long ago made contact with those beyond the mountains and seen a different way of life, she still did not doubt herself. Likewise that she experienced others, so they experienced her. Slowly it began that from all over the region- even on ships from the southerland and even those who braved the mountain passes and came from the west- people came to Azurai priests for the blood-cleansing or the oracle, at the simple price of a worthy sacrifice upon the altar of al Rai, father to all gods. Al Rai treasured a sacrifice that was difficult for the supplicant to bear, only then could it be worthy of the oracle's divination or the setting free of one's transgressions. It could be a year's savings, it could be one's only horse. Hunting dogs without which one could not make a living, prized and priceless heirlooms, bardic instruments that knew no equal. And children. The gods always prized beloved children to tend their temples and worship in innocence at their altars.
But for those that deceived the gods, punishment was swift, by the hand of al Rai himself sometimes, it is said. I call myself an orphan because two mortals dared to deceive him, and I do not call the Azurati ‘my people' because of it.
My father was a swarthy tradesman of thirty-and-five. My mother, a fair maid of sixteen, with peachy pale skin and red hair. She had the blessed green eyes of the sacred isles, those three misty bodies which rounded the horn of our land scarcely touched by human hand for their sanctity and ties to the heritage of the true eastern shore people, a now almost extinct breed, who were here before memory fails us. Born with such singular colors her parents had pledged her girdle to Saiph, wife of al Rai and mother to all women of the earth. She would grow up at temple, and her life was to be chaste and obedient, until the goddess chose a mate for her through the equinox festival, held every four years in the courtyard of the her grandest temple, which rested on the flat just before the mountain foothills. It was a rich, sacred place where men feared to tread lest they anger the Mother.
Girls who had reached their time between festivals were anointed with oils and dressed in white robes. They danced their secret dances through the night, while the high priest, the only man allowed within the temple walls, sang out his prayers. At dawn the girls were led into the yard where stood the veiled men who had been chosen for them, at the judgment of the high priest, as he had received a sign for each of them from the Mother. Later, when I was older and thought back, I began to wonder if the sign wasn't the form of a heavy purse, for they were always rich men it seemed. They would go, marry, and devote their firstborn to the temple which had opportunely conceived their existence.
But on her night the man chosen for my mother was nowhere, and she stood alone in the courtyard, trembling beneath her white silken finery and gold jewelry, convinced the goddess was angry with her. As young girls will, she submitted to the fancy of the young that they can outrun their fate, and fled into the night. The priest ordered no one to give chase to her; the goddess had spoken. Only moments later did her chosen suitor come racing in on a horse lamed from the run. A sailing merchant, a foreigner, which a rough sea had delayed his boats, put dangerously hard into port only moments too late. But they all knew that brother to Saiph was Majei, king of the ocean.
In a dark alleyway of the nearby village my mother crouched and cried in fear. She had never been beyond the temple walls, had never seen a man besides the aging high priest. Her robes were dirty with mud from the streets, the dark paint on her green eyes bled down her cheeks with her tears. It was in this state that my father found her and carried her to his hearth.
Whether she was willing or not, I do not know. She was just an innocent girl, but my father a selfish grown man, who knew nothing of the Mother's ways. She would tell him she had fallen out of favor with the gods, and must sacrifice to appease them and learn of what she had done wrong. He would persuade her that nothing material would be enough, for she had nothing to give and he did not fancy parting with his hounds, horses or his gold to help a muddied virgin of the temple, even though she had now given him something more sacred than her life. But he did care for her enough to not want to part, and thus devised a plan to make with her a child, who would then go to the temple of the Mother, for their salvation.
Thus, I was not born of love. I was not even born out of a bond-marriage. I was born from a shunned temple maid and a devious iron worker, in the end conceived only to achieve their deliverance. So when I was set upon the stone altar of my mother's home temple, three years old to the day and filthy with the wood shavings and soot of my father's shop, they inadvertently sentenced me into a life of lonely exile.
I was told how I wailed when she'd stepped away from me, how I was reaching out for her. I do not know if she reached for me. I like to think that she did, at the last minute having changed her mind about giving up her only son and cried out my name, flinging herself at the altar to get to me. I wish I had the memory of my mother's love and the look that was perhaps in her green eyes if she really had been reaching for me. It might have sustained me better than some shadowy memory of her image whenever I looked at my own reflection.
A storm had been on the horizon all morning, and it was only that moment, as I cried, reaching, that it struck. The gods suddenly sent down a mighty rumbling from the sky, and fire birthed of lightening struck the trees dried by a rainless summer and quickly spread through the temple grounds. I remember the noise only vaguely, and the sound of my mother screaming as my father dragged her away. Everywhere there was chaos, running priests and supplicants, the cry of other beasts brought for sacrifice, now loose on the grounds. The roar and heat of the fires, soon doused by torrents of rain as the sky split in two to drop an ocean. In the middle of the fray there I sat, as Moire has told me, upon the altar, weeping, looking around for my fled parents.
The storm lasted for nearly two days, the worst the country had known in years. It had come like a wall of wind and rain from the ocean, with one short respite some hours in, before the worst came. My parents were never found. The high priest, called from the Temple al Rai in the chaos, wanted me to be made a blood sacrifice, but the priestess Moire bade him to wait out the gods' fury. A child in tantrum is better left to finish it, lest it begin again, she said. The Mother's husband was only indignant at the affront. If he were truly angry, surely the temple would stand no longer.
In the end she had underestimated al Rai's fury, just as the high priest had over-estimated it, for by the end of the storm half the temple stood, while the other half had collapsed into the soaked ground, killing three priestesses and one supplicant maiden whose unlucky long red locks were dirtied in mud and ash, nigh invisible where she lay.
I grew up only by the grace of Moire's protection of me from the high priest. She became the mother I'd lost, but she had never been the coddling type. I knew her fingers for being hard and bony in a grip about my wrist, or her low, husky voice hissing reproach. Being an eternal devotee to the Mother, Moire had never known motherhood, nor wished to. However, she had known my own mother, and had harbored an affection for her that had now seeped into sadness at her fate. So despite herself she'd cared for me inasmuch as she knew how.
But Moire could not speak for me before the people. I had not been accepted as a tribute; in fact, I'd been vehemently rejected. I was labeled ‘cursed', and treated a pariah within the temple however much I strived to do all that I could to correct the wrong my parents had done. I gave my rations to the goddess in daily sacrifice and chose to go hungry. I never played with toys or the other children; they would not have me. I deigned to touch the animals lest I bring pestilence upon them, and washed my hands and feet four or five times a day so that I would not foul the temple grounds. Inside I suffered, for just as the child bears the weight of a broken home, did I bear the weight of thousands who visited the ruinous temple. It had been left that way as a reminder to all of the gods' wrath.
I do not remember a moment when I was not conscious of my disastrous beginnings. Childish innocence and ignorance of the world and its selfish evils was never mine, even for a few blessed moments when I was too young to even grasp my own name. Something in me must have always known that my life, such as it was, was not mine. I would be at temple until the day I atoned, even if it was with my death. So it was no surprise that when I turned eight and could be in the Mother's house no longer, the high priest came and took me away from the only home I remembered, and I never saw Moire again. To the grand temple of al Rai I went, under the watchful eye of the high priest, where I doubled my efforts to appease. A hard father as Moire ever was a mother, he had no love for me and made sure that all who knew me had none either. He said I was a scandal to walk the temple grounds, my very presence there was a reminder of the insult. Why he did not rid himself of me, at the time I did not know. He was only waiting for me to grow, I suppose. He had already devised my fate.
But that would come later. In my eighth year, despite the sorrowful monotony that plagued my everyday life, something began to change in me. I was suddenly becoming aware of the movement of the world, as a deer feels the tree that falls leagues away, or a fish senses the waterfall long before the land drops into oblivion. I began to feel when a storm was brewing on the horizon, even in the darkest night when I could see nothing, or on the brightest of days where there was not a cloud in the sky. And when I began to really concentrate, I thought for all the world that I could feel the movements in the atmosphere itself, as surely as I felt my own emotions. Sadness, weariness, anger… they all became breezes, gusts of wind. Storms. What was out there? And when I could put words to the questioning in my mind, they took the form of ‘What draws this long taut thread between nature and I?'
This thread became my only source of comfort, the one thing no one but I could touch, and pull on when I needed. I began to rely on it. A soft breeze caressed me at a lonely moment in the courtyards, or a light mist would cool my face during hours of hard labor in the priest's quad of gardens. My only friend, this something.
I received my first true beating that year, not from the high priest, but from a reeder in the nearby village. I was out on an errand run for the tenders and he had mistaken me for someone else he'd seen lifting goods from his jars. Without warning he'd reared back with a roar and started beating my head and shoulders with his long cane. Terrified, and mostly made of knees and elbows at that point, I cried out for help and tried to get away, but instead ended up toppling his wares and infuriating him more.
Luck was with me that day that he was an old man who couldn't give chase and who tired easily, else I'm sure he would have beaten me dead. I finally crawled out of his shop, bruised and bleeding from broken pottery, crying. I cowered in the shade of a tall stone pillar and dug my fingers into the ground, reached out for the soothing, enveloping comfort of my friend, and that's when it happened. Everything suddenly went silent, my thoughts included. The market square, though people bustled all around me, became a muted backdrop and I began to listen without realizing it. Moments passed and I knelt frozen, the shop behind me forgotten, staring off into the distance at my temple's white colonnade. No matter how I was tripped over, something bade me stay there, just listening, waiting, building.
A loud, resounding boom pounded in my ears and the ground, the solid ground began to shake beneath my feet. People around me fled into a panic, screaming as the makeshift canvases and stands began to crumble into debris everywhere. The blast of noise was unbearable; I crouched down to the ground again and covered my ears, watching before me as even the sturdiest shops swayed and began to crash down. In the distance my temple home stood firm. Behind me, the pillar wavered but did not fall, though the reeder had been crushed beneath his own roof.
The earth shake lasted but a few breaths and heartbeats, but it had brought down a good portion of the small market town, which had been made up mostly of wooden shanty buildings and barns, with thatched roofs and stacked fences. Those colonnades and pillars made of stone and marble, erected for the gods, had all stood firm. I stood up on my feet again, heart pounding in my ears, breath hitching in my throat, but strangely unshaken for the rubble around me. For the first time I wondered if my friend was not the very presence of the gods themselves, for what else could have caused such a thing to happen? As if they had whispered in my ear to not be afraid, I felt a certain peace inside. Could it be possible? But why would they help me?
I told no one of how that incident had affected me. The town was rebuilt and the temple's cellars became engorged with tribute from both those that had been saved and those that had lost. I doubled my efforts to prayer, imploring al Rai to tell me why, why me? The question on every supplicant's lips was now on mine.
I grew up from a lonely boy into a lonely youth. I received lashes almost weekly; I'd been made into a whipping boy for the rich students of the temple, who took great pleasure in not paying for their purposeful deeds. When I wept the priest would look me in the eye and say, "You are only one. Do you think al Rai will hear your tears when there are others more deserving?" He told me it pleased the god to see me suffer and used. Perhaps he was right. The gods had not answered my prayers since the day of the earthshake, and once again I was beginning to think that my connection with the breezes was only some insignificant anomaly. Of course the gods had not noticed me. At night I would walk barefoot in the courtyard and look up at the sky. "I am only one," I would whisper to myself.
Time passed, and I began to wonder what would become of me when I grew too old for the temple life. Already the other youths my age began to disappear to their own vocations, but I knew that I never would. The answer came when I was thirteen, in the form of a strange hooded man who entered the temple grounds, dismounted, and waited in the courtyard until he was met. His eyes alighted on me where I crouched beside the vestibule wall, peering up at him as I nursed a finger pad that had split from too much whitewashing. It was the season for it, and there was much statuary in the outer courtyard.
With his horse tossing its head beside him he handed papers to the high priest who looked sourly at them, passed them back to his assistants who had followed, then at me as I began to scrub the alabaster stone and tried not to look as interested as I was.
"The time has come. Take him as arranged," the priest said. But as the man held out a small pouch, he refused it. "We can take no donations for him, else his presence will always linger in some form." As he left, I heard him saying, "It has come time for the grounds to be cleansed. Finally, the Mother's temple may be rebuilt."
The man dropped the hood of his cloak as he turned his head to look at me. His dark face was lined with trials of his life, and in a child's fantasy I envisioned him a great warrior in hardy battle upon his steed come to rescue the good. But the vision faded; he was only a messenger.
"I assume it's you, little copperhead," he said. I was beckoned, then lifted and set upon the back of his horse. There was no chance given to collect what few belongings I had, mostly in the form of clothing, but that did not unsettle me nearly as being on the back of horse before I had even allowed myself to come near one in my life. When the man swung up before me I fought the urge to clamp onto him, lest I dirty him as well.
We rode out that very hour, and I looked back only once at the temple, looming underneath a bright, sunny sky. After a few paces, the man tuned over his shoulder and said, "I can't keep a walk all the way to Gacrux. If you want to stay on this horse you'd better hold on or risk breaking your neck from the fall. I'm not ticklish."
"Gacrux?" I said. Capitol city of Azurai and home of the Palace of Zaurac. The home of the King. It had fabled spires of copper and gold.
"Gacrux," he said. "Close enough to see it at least. You can call me Kraz if you like. The journey will only take a day or two."
I wanted to ask him where and why I was being taken there but refrained. He appeared to not be a religious man, by the liberties he took with allowing me so near him and speaking to me with a kind word. I supposed he didn't know the whole story about my birth, and if he were in ignorance, I didn't see how the gods would punish him. So I put my hands on him with the knowledge that he would not pay for my crimes, and we rode on, mostly in silence until the day lengthened and then expired. At an out-posting we changed the horse for a fresh one, and did not stop riding through the night. I dozed against his back, my hands tightly wrapped into the sash about his waist beneath his riding frock. He was a seasoned messenger rider, and would get his task done with all speed before he allowed himself to rest.
The stopping of our horse nudged me into wakefulness and I dazedly looked about. It was late afternoon already; I had dozed on and off all day between the few stops Kraz made to allow me to stretch my limbs. A small town had appeared before us, made up only of staccato houses and barns with over hanging roofs of thatched weavings, much like the town attached to my temple. A long, wide, rutted road stretched ahead of us as the main thoroughfare between the houses and small shops, to end abruptly at the wooden gates of a large stoned sanctuary building. There were a few people about at this time of the afternoon on a worship day, and those we did pass hardly paid any mind.
"The city lies just beyond those hills. See? You can just see the glinting on the horizon," Kraz said, pointing a brown finger into the dim distance, but I could see nothing but hazy space. "You'll have to stop here first, there's business to be done."
I clutched Kraz's midsection tighter as he started for the walls, and he threw a small glance over his shoulder that I could not read. In a moment he saw what I had- the large man that had come out to meet us before the gates. Dutifully, Kraz dismounted and handed over his papers. The man looked over them thoroughly, turning them back to front several times, and then fixed his gaze on me. He was dressed as a simple peasant, shortsleeves and breeches, but at his belt hung a short, narrow shaft wrapped tightly in black leather. At the temple I'd been beaten with a small cane or open hand. Here, I recognized a beating stick before I even knew such things existed.
My stomach growled loudly as Kraz reached up to help me down. "I should have brought food on the journey if I'd known it was a boy I'd be taking," he said with a smile and deftly tucked a leather pouch, the same one he'd offered to the high priest, into my tunic. I felt its weight secretly with my hand, but could do nothing but thank him for the small gift with my eyes. The pouch had the feel of coin; he'd taken pity on me, and gave me the donation refused by the god. How fitting.
He turned to the large man. "To Gacrux, within the month to a trade. That was the priest's arrangement." he said. He took his leave quickly; he had other messages to deliver. But he did throw one last glance at me and a wink. I knew nothing of Kraz really, besides his easy, weathered features; he could have been a wife-beater or a murderer, but at that moment I wanted to throw myself at his feet and beg to go with him. He was the kindest person I had met in thirteen years of life.
The burly man said nothing until horse and messenger were out of sight. When it was so, I looked up, way up, at the other man, for he was at least two heads taller than I. When he began to walk back to the gates I had to trot to keep up with his pace. A thousand questions revolved in my mind but I had not the courage to voice them.
It would seem though that he would satisfy my curiosity. "This be a dhonastery, boy, an' we been charged for makin' ye a fit living." The large gates creaked open with a groan and we walked through. "It'll be ‘nough ta forget yer name here, ye be tha' school's property now." Before us lay a large courtyard devoid of grass. Only mud from recent rains, deeply rutted from the narrow wheels of carriages and wagons that entered, made their circle and exited the same gate. Past that, the front steps of a soulless grey building loomed before us.
"My name?" I asked, my voice but a squeak in my throat. Had I a name? Yes, yes, I did. My mother had given it to me, but I'd not been called by it since I had last seen her. They had not told the priestess before she dedicated me, right as that first clap of thunder sounded across the plains. My name… Sellæus. That was it.
The man was Balatin, keeper of the house grounds and general discipliner. In his studded speech he told me irritably that I was no longer a temple boy, and should stop waltzing behind him like one. I looked down at my bare feet for a moment, suddenly becoming aware that I had picked up the smooth, gliding walk of the priests as they wandered the gardens imperturbably in meditation. Ahead of me I saw his great form lumbering down the main hall, and resolved in a rare bout of pride to never allow myself to forget where I had come from, and move in such a ungainly way. I owed it to the god to stay with grace always.
Balatin told me in less words that he didn't know my past, and furthermore didn't care. He only had orders to make something of me, as a service to the temple, but that I shouldn't be fooled into thinking he was doing charity. I would be sold from the school at a price. The high priest had made me into the ultimate sacrifice, to live a life of the ultimate use.
He'd made me a slave.
The extent of the trade only came to my knowledge after seeing and learning about the school. Slaves were everywhere in our province, made use of through all manner of society. The poor sold their children into it, others were taken against their will; beggars in the street, prisoners from the towers pressed into service. Society outside the religious sect existed on two starkly different levels, and it was quite easy to forget that even the unenlightened dregs were all still of one people. Those slaves that had more skill sold for more, so it was a wealthy monger who could send his fare to a dhonastery, where they could double in price or triple sometimes depending on their trade.
But the privately run estate was not in it for altruism, as Balatin had told me already; they made their own profit by taking in unwanted children, useless servants old and young, and bought slaves off the blocks who looked like they had potential. All were housed and made use of, taught trades and skills, and sold out again. The old priest had not done me total injustice, in his eyes at least, by making me somewhat of value so that I did not sink to the absolute lowest sediment of humanity. He had dispatched me now with soft comfort for his conscience, and would have to spare no more worry after that.
My only salvation lay in the fact that here, I was nameless and without a past. If I could just get through the days ahead, I didn't see, with the candor of youth, how my life could be much worse off. Here at least I could try to make friends without them spitting at my feet before the words had left my mouth.
The head of the school was a bent man of about sixty, who seemed to have traded his very life force for the riches that decked his study and the fine clothes that hardly masked his crooked, scrawny body. He seemed half a corpse, sitting there behind a great oaken desk, glaring at me through silver-rimmed spectacles. Balatin shut the door behind me with a thud, making me jump nearly out of my skin, and I was left alone with this keeper of the crypts.
He looked me over several times before hobbling out of his chair to stand before me. I was not overly tall, but I believe I had him beat by a few finger widths at least, probably due to his curved back. He smelled of sweet chew and smoke as he leaned in to peer into my face.
"How old are you?" His voice recalled a twisted tree trunk, bereft of leaves and spiraling in on itself.
I straightened my back a little. "Thirteen, sir," I said.
"And what trade to you find yourself skilled at?"
I remained silent. My duties at the temple had been tedious, but very simple: scrubbing, sweeping, polishing. Hardly skills a master would spend time and money to train his slave to do ‘properly'.
"Answer, boy!" From behind his back he produced a small, slender switch, and had whacked the back of my bare calf before I knew what he intended. Stinging pain clouded my vision for a few seconds, and left my eyes a little moist.
"I-I," I stuttered, "I kept the grounds. That's all."
This he seemed satisfied with, then stepped back to gauge me some more. I stood before him, willing my limbs not to tremble with the new uncertainty of my situation. What was he looking for? What was he trying to feel when he began to take my arms and stretched them out, pat my thighs and calves, or pinch the tension in my shoulders? It took a moment of this poking and prodding to realize that he was sizing me up, trying to suss what kind of work I would be cut out for.
Last he peered into my face again, closely so that I could feel the heat of his scented breath. He looked into my eyes, lifted my chin in his thin, vice-like fingers. He looked at my teeth, then touched my hair, which had been allowed to grow long to my shoulders in the style of the temple children.
Grumbling to himself, he returned to his desk and sat down with the creaking of what I fancied were his bones in protest, but was only his wooden chair.
"Too scrawny for smithing or iron work, too fair-skinned for the fields, not strong enough for the masonry," he droned, sounding disappointed as if he'd have liked to patch me off to any of those back-grinding labors. Suddenly, he gave a sneakish, toothy grin, and I began to wonder if I might prefer the fields or woodshops.
"I have it on account that you're of a troublesome sort," he said.
My mouth hardly opened to protest; a welt had risen on the back of my leg where he'd cropped me. Regardless of what I could say anyway, the old priest had surely given him his own ‘honest' account of me.
"For youths such as yourself," the Master said, fingering his crop, "there're few places you'd fit into well without your breaking your back or dying of the heat, which would be costing me a lot of money. However, there is one trade I believe would satisfy his holiness' request for you to live a penitent existence." He gave that grin again and shuffled some papers on his desk. "It's to Fhermyna you'll go, where you will learn every day to give your god what your parents did not."
There are very few things in life I had come in contact with up to this point. Fhermyna was not a place I had heard of, thus I did not fear it just yet. The old man's words were only riddles to me as Balatin led me back down the long halls of the dhonastery to a series of bungalows behind it, where most of the other inhabitants resided. I chewed it over, this new fate of mine, as his large mass trudged ahead of me. Outside it was beginning to get dark, and the slave quarters to which he was leading me were not afforded any light.
A rough shove to the shoulder had me through the door, over which hung a heavy net resembling the fishing mesh I'd seen at market. In the failing light I could only just make out the forms of my new companions sprawled on mats and reed pads on the floor.
"A new fella in yor midst," Balatin said with a scoff. "Which I'll have no misbehavin' on ‘im tonight, he be for Fhermyna in the mornin'. Unspoilt, or ye be havin' me to deal with."
He left, the heavy netting fell behind him, and soon we were all left in almost complete darkness. I heard my ragged breath in the silence and knew that they all gazed in my direction. Most keenly I could smell their presence, heavy with the sweat of their labor and unwashed state; it made the air musty and thick. Quelling nausea, slowly I crouched down to the floor. It felt safer somehow than standing up straight in the lion's den.
There was movement behind me, then a voice, male, and harsh with either age or toil. I felt a pinch on my thigh that made me jump. "What you done to deserve that place, eh boy? Slicked the regent did you?"
"Maybe they got ‘im on the street," another voice piped up from across the room, "sellin' it to someone wit a bit o'brass."
"Mayhap he bedded a temple lass an' got caught," came another. "Was she good then?" There were hisses of sniggering laughter.
I hugged my knees, not liking to insinuation between all these claims. Someone punched my shoulder. "Eh, boy? Tell us an' we'll heed ol' B's warnin'. Which there be ways to be spoilt without leavin' marks ya know."
"W-What's Fhermyna?" I asked softly. All around me there came choked laughter, squelched lest some unseen guard hear from outside.
"What's Fhermyna! You been ‘neath a rock?"
"Mayhap not a rock, but he been ‘neath somethin'-" And more crude jokes at my expense, while my face flushed red hot. I was only glad they could not see my discomfort, as it might have egged them on even more.
I struggled to regain control of the emotion rising within me that I could not distinguish as either fear or angry mortification. Something of both. I tried again. "Is it a dhonastery?" If I could get anything out of them at all it would surely make enduring this worthwhile, but there was nothing coming from them but banter and vulgarities. It would seem that there were few diversions in their lives, and would carry this one through to the very end.
Defeated and nervous, I slid over the floor to a corner I remembered as unoccupied when there had still been light, and turned away from them. I curled myself into a ball on the dusty floor and hid my head on my arms, hoping that morning would come soon, but even more that amid their bantering, they might even forget about me.
Several moments later, I felt someone sidle up close. My body froze, my heart leapt to my throat.
"Aye, a dhonastery, but of a different kind," came a lighter voice close to my right and above my head, quiet so as not to be heard over the others. He was young still, but older than I. I felt the heat of a smelly body leaned close. "Which it's where they put those that don' deserve ta work proper laborin'. I hope whatever lord ya slicked was worth it, lad, cause you'll be doin' it for the rest of yor life."
Whomever it was had meant to be helpful, but what I was beginning to realize about this place I was going to kept me petrified in place and silence. He left me alone after I gave him no response, perhaps thinking me asleep or ignorant, but I could be neither. I remained awake all night, frightful someone would choose not to heed Balatin's warnings, but also dreading the coming of the morning and where it would take me from there.
Balatin had hardly said a word since he'd fetched me from the slave bungalows early in the morning. I didn't pester him with questions; I had certainly heard enough of the place I was going to not be so curious anymore. Even more distracting to me had been my empty stomach which, though quieted last night by my nervousness, had now fully awoken to remind me how I had not eaten in two days.
Unlike before, with horse and messenger rider, to Gacrux I was transported in the back of a wagon, only hired because it was going in the same direction on some other business. They wouldn't waste extra money or effort on me, besides to have Balatin deliver me personally. Evidently though the specialty of the school was considered one of the lowest lines of work a slave could be put into, those that came out of it sold for ludicrous amounts of money to the rich and decadent. I was young enough and, it would seem, fair enough to warrant a little extra caution on their part to bar my escape.
My ankles were fettered and my hands bound behind my back. Balatin tossed me into a corner of the cart as if I were a sack of rice and climbed in after me, his great weight causing the wooden trolley to moan and shift until he'd settled in the opposite corner. I turned my head to the side to avoid his dark, bloodshot eyes and unwanted attention. I was beginning to come to grips with my reality, and that the cruelty of humans I'd endured at the temple was nothing compared to this strange outside world. Strange that I would start to long for averted glances, spittle at my feet and the feel of the lash every now and then compared to my situation now. Here was a man who knew where he was taking me and didn't care. I really was as a sack of rice, a commodity. No more than a hound whose value he could increase with just a little training.
The trip wasn't a long one, but it dragged on for what seemed like endless, nightless days. The cart driver was an old man and did not fancy conversation. He possibly could not have managed it past a rattling cough always followed by a spit of phlegm. Balatin hardly made the effort either, staring at me as he was, unwaveringly, unnervingly. At last the sun set and I, who had not slept at all the night before, found myself welcoming a respite from his gaze and the draining heat of the day. Already my skin had a reddish hue, my stomach had begun to twist and my skin rub itself raw from the shifting of the cart beneath my ripped tunic.
The driver pulled off the road into a small clearing in the middle of a cane field, one of the many that I found surrounded the capital city. He untacked the two cobs that drew it, hobbled them and set them to graze on the immature stalks, coughing and spitting all the while, like it was to a tune in his head. Balatin lifted me from my corner and set me onto the grassy clearing they'd made.
"If'n I loosen these here ropes fer a bit, you'll not run, hear? I got's a throwin' ax that'll make short work'a kid like ye. Which out here, none'll find ye."
I nodded quickly and he cut my bonds as promised. Then he went to make a cook fire and I watched without even the slightest thought of running, absently rubbing my sore limbs. When our little makeshift camp was made, we sat around the fire, staring at one another and listening to the crackling embers. Finally, I could hold my silence no longer.
"What will happen when we get there?" I asked suddenly, daring to overstep my bounds.
Balatin didn't seem to mind the question. He continued to pick his teeth with a bit of gristle left over from our paltry meal of a two gamey francolins, which to me had tasted like the richest butter-turkey I'd ever had, and stared into the fire. "Fhermyna, which it's where the whores go if'n they gets caught in tha wrong places, or their chits if they be fair enough. If'n they so badly wants to do the trade, they gets taught right enough, an' branded an' sold to tha highest bidder."
I had suspected as much, but I suppose some part of me had wanted to think those other slaves had only wanted to scare me. Now my blood ran icy in my veins. To this day I had kept myself as all the other temple children- pure. I'd not even sought knowledge of those pleasures of the flesh as some of the others had, at least to know what was to come the day they could marry. I had not a clue, nor had ever cared to. My life was as the old priest had made it; simple and lackluster, with hardly even the capacity to wish for something better.
Balatin shifted and then spat. The silent driver gave an echoing one. "I s'pose ye got buggered by tha' ol' priest, or sommat like tha', tho the Master seems ta think ye be a unsullied. But at Fhermyna they'll know for sure, which they clean ye up'a'bit an' a pretty face like tha' wot go not noticed fer long, I'll tell ye. Folks hardly sees colorin' as yorn ‘cept in them shrine lasses no'one cain't never touch. Nah, if'n ye do yor duties well ‘nough I s'pect ye be goin' fer a decent price. Mebbe even ‘longside tha' palace yonder."
The palace at Gacrux, home of the King, His Majesty Vega Kelb al Rai and his court. Supposedly taller than any other edifice our country knew, banners of red and gold flying high over towering spindles and angled gold-flecked rooftops. It was white, I had heard, made of the same alabaster stone my temple had been, and when the morning sun hit its rafters one could go blind from the glow. I stared up at the stars. The palace.
Balatin considered our conversation over with. He crawled over to me and rebound my limbs, so that they could both sleep without worry that I would run. My fear once again kept me awake for many hours, long after the fire had burned itself out and both men lay snoring. But my body would not have another night without rest. I eventually dozed off just as the nightbirds began their last songs, into a light sleep that was colored white and gold.
We rode into Gacrux along late afternoon the next day. The dark form of the Pleione Wood had vanished behind us, and the first thing I saw in the distance ahead were the outer walls of the city, almost black against the sunny green and gold rolling countryside. Tall and thick enough to keep an army out, they snaked around the cluster of hills the city lay nestled between. On the highest of these, I could make out the palace, a brilliant white beacon amid the timber and earth-colored town. To the west of the great capitol estate rose the Mothallah Mountains, snow-capped purple and ashen grey against the blue sky. From my temple home they'd always been hidden by the wood.
The closer our cart rattled on, the more people we began to pass. Their commerce moved freely between the open city gates and the sustaining farmlands beyond, and we began to see the wide plains dotted with houses and the larger, enclosed keeps, which were designed to provide an outpost for the army should war come this far inland. I crouched in my corner of the wagon to avoid prying eyes, but it would seem few were interested in much beyond their own business. It was well into harvest time, these mass fields had to be reaped before the isolated caps of the mountains would be part of a blanket of snow over these plains and the winter upon us.
Within the gates, the city again looked much like the town near my temple, only larger in scale. There were more people, more carts, more noise, more beggars, more buildings. The daily routines went on about us, hardly pausing for a simple cart to pass through. I began to wonder how far in we would travel, as it appeared the houses and shops got nicer the closer we moved to the center, up the hill to the palace.
"'Ere," Balatin said suddenly, dropping from the wagon before it'd even stopped completely. He grabbed for me, dragged me along the wood until I fell into the dirt at his feet, my hands and feet still bound. Cursing, as if he'd forgotten about my fetters, he knelt to untie them.
The building before us looked very much like the last dhonastery, only with a series of attics and eaves attached to each wing, like the quarters of a shoddy inn. Like the other, this one too had a fence of vertically-stacked timber around it, too tall to climb, and topped with sharpened spikes. I shuddered to look at them and think of why there had been the need to construct them.
Balatin lifted me up by the elbow with a grunt for me to follow. I hesitated, taking one last look out the front gate as if it were the last time I would see the outside world.
"Balls, he's filthy," cursed Master Writhen, the head keeper, upon Balatin's presentation of me in his office. His disgust wasn't amiss; I'd not had a bath in three days, was covered in road dust and my own sweat, and had been rubbed raw in not a few tender places from the ride. In attendance to the gods, one must always keep themselves clean and pure, I had been taught. I detested the grime between my fingers and bare toes, and sorely wondered if I was to spend the rest of my days here in the same ripped tunic.
The master was a tall man with limp, ashy hair and a full black beard. He was considerably darkened by the sun from earlier years as an auctioneer, but an idle life here behind a great desk had made him plump. Yet he was vigorous still; I could see as he came to tower over me that he'd once been a man who had surely won many brawls.
"We keep ourselves clean here, boy," he said. "It's to your advantage and to ours, understand?"
I nodded quickly. His great hand reached out and grabbed my chin so he could peer into my face. I would be appraised again, this time by a man who knew what I was useful for.
He began without ceremony. There wasn't a part of me that wasn't examined or poked or prodded; yet I stood still as a statue, frozen in fear and humiliation, cheeks burning, angry, salty tears soon quavering in my eyes. Even today I shudder to think of what those first moments were like to someone who'd never been so handled before. Worse yet, Balatin still hovered in the corner, watching with great interest, even offering to hold my tunic should it need to come completely off.
Finally, though, right when I felt my knees would give way, Writhen withdrew his large, calloused hands. I suddenly remembered to breathe as I hastily tried to wrap my tunic around myself once again, trembling fiercely.
"Fine, fine," Writhen said. "Truly unsullied. Fine indeed, he'll do very well." As he spoke he'd been moving towards the door to the office, where he paused to clap his hands loudly. "A fine recommendation," he mused softly, his dark eyes on me. A girl appeared at the door, young, though older than I, dressed in a plain white tunic and bare-footed. Writhen guided me by the shoulder in her direction. "Get him cleaned up, Tisch," he said.
The girl had just given a small bow when a deep, commanding voice said, "Hold a moment there."
I with the others turned to see a man that had not been there before, but appeared to have come in from a room to the side of study, a fresh drink in a red glass in hand. He set the full glass down and peered at me. I had never before seen a gentleman dressed so fine and carry it so well, I would have thought him a prince without the wit to think that a prince surely would not be in such a place. He was handsome and young, about thirty and five, of average height, with blond locks pulled back into a plait. It was a custom of the high-born males, especially those at court, so I learned.
He paced a circle around me, his open interest apparent as he sized me up and down. I tried to remain still and stare ahead, lest they notice my trembling.
"A charming youth, Writhen," he said, no, breathed. "Absolutely charming." He had a voice that was quite deep.
The Master wrung his hands, nervous at the prospect of losing me so soon. "Just a temple boy, sent down for disgrace," he said.
"Hmm." The man continued to pace. He walked his fingers up my back, producing a most extraordinary shiver down my spine, touched my hair, then came around and lifted my face. He smelled of a musky perfume that was pleasant to my nose, despite the situation. I found it hard to hold his gaze for the heat in my face.
"Yes," he breathed like a secret. "Green eyes. A rarity."
"My Lord Acamar, I was under the impression you were looking to stock the courtesan flats. This boy has just arrived; surely you can't be thinking of taking him-"
His hand tightened on my jaw but his anger was supremely contained within the smooth lines of his face. "I'll take what I please, Master Writhen. Do not forget it is I and my contemporaries who keep you in business."
Writhen was subdued, and I wondered how high a rank this man possessed to silence him so quickly. Still, he had to try once more-
"But he's without any skill or practice. If you like we can have him finished out by the Solstice Holidays-"
The Lord Acamar held up a hand and Writhen was silenced once again. "Unsullied, even better," he mused to himself. With a decision in the set of his broad shoulders, he looked back to Writhen. "He'll not learn your cheap ways. No, not this one," he said. He drew himself up and walked back to collect his drink. He seated himself gracefully and took a sip while we all waited on his whim.
"The Ten Year Reign is coming," he said. "And I believe it is a time for my brothers and I to pay a proper tribute to our eldest." His eyes rested on me again and I fought a chill. "I'm going to take this boy, unsullied, to the palace. He will be cleaned, he will be fed, and he will learn the Felari."
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